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Shelley Lubben Business Model: Former prostitute reaches out to women who work in the sex industry

GRAND RAPIDS from – A group of 10 women gathered on a recent Tuesday evening for Bible study at a Northeast Grand Rapids church.

Their discussion, readings and prayers that night, as on all nights they meet, were focused on those they say don’t get much attention from ministry, except condemnation: sex workers.

The women, who range in age from their early 20s to mid 60s, are part of a new ministry called Eve’s Angels, started by former prostitute and exotic dancer Anny Donewald.

Their outreach efforts include visiting area strip clubs and getting the word out to sex workers — just women, for now — that there’s a safe place for them to learn about God.

Eventually, they hope the nonprofit can open a house where women who want to leave the industry can live while looking for other work, go to school and explore their faith.

“(Objectifying) women’s bodies is attacking the morality of our families and our culture,” Donewald said. “We need to let these women know that Jesus loves them. This is a social problem, and it’s up to the body of Christ to fix it.”

Donewald, 32, started Eve’s Angels this spring. The group meets once a week at New Life Christian Fellowship.

In 2004, after working in adult entertainment for six years, the Indiana native who was raised near Kalamazoo said she reached a breaking point.

She had spoken to God before, she said, to ask that he get her home safely as she drove drunk and watch over her when she was in strange places.

But she considered practicing Christians “the worst,” she said, “and I thought the Bible was just a way for men to control women.”

Donewald said she was making a six-figure income by age 23, working first as a stripper in Michigan and Chicago, then as a prostitute in Las Vegas and California.

But she had to rely more and more on alcohol and drugs to do the work, she said.

“At one point I thought, ‘I can’t believe I’ve gotten this low,’” she said. “I thought, ‘I wonder if, as bad as I’ve been, if I can be that good.’”

Pregnant with her second child, she remembers hearing, in her mind, a message from God.

“He said, ‘Don’t let anybody tell you who I am. Let me be the one to show you,’” she recalled. “I knew he loved me. I knew my sins were forgiven. I knew I was in.”

Pivotal to turning her life around, she said, was having a safe, loving place to go. For her, that was home, to her parents.

“They had told me, ‘We don’t agree with your lifestyle, but you’re our daughter,’” Donewald recalled. “They showed me grace and they showed me love.”

The message she had for the women gathered at the recent Bible study could sum up how she feels about getting the chance to turn her life around: “What you conquer in your own life, you then have the capacity to conquer in other people.”

Nonetheless, what those involved in Eve’s Angels learn about the women they minister to “is shocking to a lot of Christians,” Donewald said. “They don’t understand what darkness that lifestyle entails.”

Rachelle Funk is a pastor’s daughter who works in the children’s ministry at New Life. This summer, she visited an area strip club with a group of those in the ministry.

With permission from the club’s management, they waited for dancers to approach them, then told them that God loves them, she said, and that God was not angry with them. They handed out Bibles to anyone who wanted one.

Funk, 32, admits she was nervous, but “I went because I’m happy to be able to see what this ministry means,” she said. “These women need to be reached out to.”

A mother of two, she thinks she can relate to sex workers with children.

“I can’t imagine the life these children are exposed to,” she said.

Having older women in the group also is crucial, Donewald said, because they can be a mothering presence for women who have cut ties with their families.

A powerful mothering force in Donewald’s life is Opal Carr, 53, who also is involved with Eve’s Angels.

“There are more Annys out there,” Carr said, “and we’re going toward something, something promising.

“The lesson for me is graciousness, forgiveness and love. People are in situations they don’t want to be in.”

Donewald knows that.

“No little girl says, ‘I want to be a stripper,’” she said. “I want to love them where they are, and give them the opportunity to become what God intended them to be.”

Donewald holds a bachelor’s degree in family and consumer science. A lot of her education had to do with crisis intervention.

She made international news a couple of months ago when she traveled to Ohio with the leader of a similar ministry in San Diego called J.C’s Girls, to intervene in a rift between a local church and strip club there.

Progress was made, she said, but the protests have continued.

Donewald is looking for support from West Michigan churches, not only for the sake of sex workers but for those, even inside churches, who objectify women.

Jon Hazeltine, senior associate pastor at New Life, said his church supports what Donewald is doing.

“It’s absolutely the kind of thing we believe in, in hurting people being helped,” he said of Eve’s Angels. “It’s closer than people think, and one of the biggest opportunities we have to make an impact is to break the lie that it’s far away.”

That goes not only for those who work in the sex industry, he said, but those who buy what they’re selling.

“Whether you’re dancing or attending, you’ve probably got some hurts that got you there,” Hazeltine said. “God loves the women who work in those clubs and he loves the guys who go to them.”


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